The Hold Steady’s second album, Separation Sunday, starts late at night, in a quiet, dirty room. As lead singer Craig Finn tells it in the opening verse, the girl looks down at what’s left and, with tired apprehension, says to the boy: “I won’t be much for conversation if we go and do the rest of this.” She thinks for a moment and adds: “I’ve never been much for conservation. And I kinda dig these awkward silences.” Then they do the rest of it, and it’s agony, ecstasy, and glorious kicking and screaming until the album ends.
That was last year, though. On their recently issued third album, Boys and Girls in America (Vagrant Records), Brooklyn’s most literary bar band sound a lot sunnier than they used to, as if the breakthrough success they enjoyed on their last outing left them somehow enlightened and refocused. Their winter weariness has given way to warm vibes and summer love. Once their message to the kids was: Be careful! Now it’s more like: Kiss everyone you know!
The uniquely anachronistic sound they perfected on Separation Sunday, a hybrid of avant-garde hard-core and 1970’s classic rock, is still endlessly evocative, bringing to mind Cheap Trick’s barroom riffage, Bruce Springsteen’s heartland swagger and the weepy solitude of the Piano Man. But most of the music on the new album is dizzyingly upbeat: The chords thunder like never before, and the solos ring with unprecedented exuberance.
There are other changes. They’ve abandoned the conceptual narrative that stretched across their first two albums, ditching the vivid characters and intricate plotlines that landed them in The New Yorker last spring alongside storytelling songwriter John Darnielle. And instead of snarling his lyrics like a hoarse and surly bard, as he’s done in the past, Mr. Finn now sings his melodies with the voice of a true pop star. The people he sings about, in turn, seem less consumed by self-destruction. Danger is less of a presence in their lives than it was on the Hold Steady’s previous work, and their troubles, accordingly, come across as less debilitating. Where did all the anguish go?
BOYS AND GIRLS IN AMERICA IS named after a line from On the Road. Mr. Finn mentions this in interviews with baffling nonchalance, as if Jack Kerouac were a perfectly natural, altogether appropriate source of inspiration for a group of five seasoned (if not oldish) men. It’s the first time Mr. Finn has come across as naïve—indeed, part of the reason the last two albums worked so well was that every word he sang seemed to limp from bruises accumulated over the course of a lifetime.
Apparently, the bruises have healed: Mr. Finn now plays cheerleader to America’s “young and awkward lovers.” On the album’s most revved-up number, “Massive Night,” he tells the story of a couple going to their senior prom: “We all kinda fumbled through the Jitterbug / We were all powered up on some new upper drug / And everyone was funny, and everyone was pretty /And everyone was coming towards the center of the city.” As on the rest of the album, Mr. Finn slips the drugs in but makes no big fuss about them. The chorus still roars, the night still ends well and no one gets hurt, even if the chaperone does kick the narrator out for dancing too close to his girlfriend. There’s less to fear and much to celebrate on Boys and Girls—and there’s not much at stake.
As a result, the album feels somewhat slight, and the starry-eyed nostalgia with which Mr. Finn tackles his subjects never quite reaches the state of Dionysian intoxication he’s going for.
Where they once hungered for salvation, the Hold Steady now ache for hugs. Where Mr. Finn was once poignant, he’s now merely quaint. For a band that has proved itself capable of harnessing both nostalgia and teen angst with unmatched class, that’s not enough.